Former reporter severely injured in drunk driving crash urges young adults to not drink & drive

Statistics show that more drinking & driving incidents happen during prom, graduation time

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The new national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is using her personal story to save lives as the organization targets young people.

Tess Rowland, 24, barely survived a drunk driving crash when she was hit head-on while on her way to work as a morning reporter in Panama City Beach in May 2021. She now uses her story to inspire teens to stay safe during prom season and to encourage people to stop drunk driving.

Tess Rowland (Special to WJXT)

According to MADD, every 45 minutes someone dies in a drunk driving crash, but this risk is further amplified around prom and graduation season.

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that one in three alcohol-related teen traffic fatalities occurred during prom season, from April to June.

She was 22 when the crash happened and said it nearly killed her and changed her life forever. She suffered complex fractures to her shoulder, elbow and knee, along with internal injuries which required seven surgeries, four plates and 22 screws to fix.

She continues to live with chronic pain and may need more surgeries. Rowland was out of work for months after the crash, forcing her mother to move from her home in South Florida to take care of her daughter as she went through recovery and rehabilitation.

“May 4 was supposed to be just a normal Tuesday morning,” Rowland said. “And then the next thing I knew, I saw bright headlights coming right at me. And since then, I’ve had severe injuries, the same to my entire right side internal injuries. I had to relearn how to walk, use my right arm. And I’ve had seven surgeries. And today I have metal throughout my entire right side. And I live in chronic pain, all because someone allegedly made a choice.”

Tess Rowland (Special to WJXT)

A Bay County Sheriff’s Office report identified the driver who hit her as a 22-year-old from Tennessee. Authorities charged him with DUI serious bodily injury, possession of a controlled substance and possession of marijuana. He pleaded not guilty, according to Bay County court records, and is awaiting trial.

Further research also shows that 18% of drivers under the age of 21 have admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), underage drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths each year and can lead to early addiction as well as many other dangerous outcomes.

Rowland and MADD shared the following advice:

  • First off - if you are under 21 you should not drink. So, if you are at a school dance and there’s alcohol or other drugs, look out for your friends, especially if you think they may be using substances, and encourage them to make a plan to safely get home. And never let them get behind the wheel of a car – ever.
  • When it comes to ridesharing apps, the answer is simple. If they are available to you, use them. Rideshare drivers are designated drivers. Otherwise, you can also call a cab-hailing service, take a taxi or public transportation.
  • I can’t stress this enough. Make a plan.

“It seems like in this world, there’s so many options that [drunk driving] would be on the decline,” she said.

Rowland also described how the advocacy group is working to use the internet for good.

“What we’re seeing on social media are these trends. These ‘Get Ready With Me’ videos and everyone’s being influenced by these products I even have but what I want to really inspire young people to understand is that it’s when they’re applying that bronzer, it’s when they’re picking out that outfit. That’s when they’re making the choice for and planning for that safe ride home. It’s really about making a plan and again, designating that driver or reserving that rideshare service but most importantly, if you’re of legal age, if you drink, do not drive.”

MADD offers a free digital handbook for parents and guardians, which offers guidance for talking about alcohol, making good choices and connecting with teens.

Visit or call 877-275-6233 for additional resources.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.